There’s a varied and distinctive range of food on offer in Croatia, largely because the country straddles two culinary cultures: the seafood-dominated cuisine of the Mediterranean and the filling schnitzel-and-strudel fare of Central Europe. Drinking revolves around a solid cross-section of wines and some fiery spirits.
Main meals are eaten in a restoran (restaurant) or a konoba (tavern) – the latter is more likely to have folksy decor but essentially serves the same range of food. A gostiona (inn) is a more rough-and-ready version of a restoran. For Croatians the most important meal of the day is lunch (ručak) rather than dinner (večera), although restaurants are accustomed to foreigners who eat lightly at lunchtime and more copiously in the evening, and offer a full range of food throughout the day.
Because many Croatians eat lunch relatively late in the afternoon, restaurants frequently offer a list of brunch-snacks (called marende on the coast, gableci inland) between 10.30am and noon. These are usually no different from main meat and fish dishes, but come in slightly smaller portions, making an excellent low-cost midday meal. Details are often chalked up on a board outside rather than written on a menu.
No Croatian town is without at least one pizzeria, and most of them serve Italian-style, thin-crust pizzas made to reasonably authentic recipes, and seafood pizzas are quite a feature on the coast.
Breakfast and snacks
Unless you’re staying in a private room or a campsite, breakfast will almost always be included in the cost of your accommodation. At its simplest it will include a couple of bread rolls, a few slices of cheese and/or salami, and some butter and jam. Mid- and top-range hotels will offer a buffet breakfast, complete with a choice of cereals, scrambled eggs and bacon. Few Croatian cafés serve breakfast of any kind, and they don’t usually mind if you bring along bread buns or pastries bought from a nearby bakery and consume them alongside your coffee.
Basic self-catering and picnic ingredients like cheese, vegetables and fruit can be bought at a supermarket (samoposluga) or an open-air market (tržnica). Markets often open early (about 6am) and begin to pack up in the early afternoon, though in well-touristed areas they sometimes keep going until late evening. Bread can be bought from either a supermarket or a bakery (pekara). Small outlets may offer a simple white loaf and little else, although you’ll usually be offered a wide choice of breads, ranging from French sticks (francuski baton or francuz) through to wholemeal loaves (bio kruh) and corn bread (kukuruzni kruh). You’ll have to point at what you want though: names of different loaves differ from one place to the next. A pekara may often sell sandwiches – filled most commonly with ham, cheese or pršut. Most bakeries and slastičarnice sell traditional Balkan pastries such as burek (filled with minced meat or cheese), zeljanica (filled with spinach) or krumpiruša (with potato).
For a more substantial snack, try the traditional southeast European repertoire of grilled meats: ćevapi (rissoles of minced beef, pork or lamb), ražnijići (shish kebab) or pljeskavica (a hamburger-like minced-meat patty), all of which are often served in a lepinja – a flat bread bun.
Any list of starters should begin with pršut, Croatia’s excellent home-cured ham. It’s often served on a platter together with cheese: paški sir from the island of Pag is the most famous – a hard, piquant cheese with a taste somewhere between Parmesan and mature cheddar; sir sa vrhnjem (cream cheese) is a milder alternative. Kulen, a spicy, paprika-laced sausage from Slavonia, is another local delicacy. Soups (juha) are usually clear and light and served with spindly noodles, unless you opt for the thicker krem-juha (cream soup).
One starter that is stodgy enough to serve as a main course is štrukli, a pastry and cheese dish which is common to Zagreb and the Zagorje hills to the north. It comes in two forms: kuhani (boiled) štrukli are large parcels of dough filled with cottage cheese, while for pečeni (baked) štrukli the dough and cheese are baked in an earthenware dish, resulting in a cross between cheese soufflé and lasagne.
Main meat dishes normally consist of a grilled or pan-fried kotlet (chop) or odrezak (fillet or escalope). These are usually either pork or veal, and can be prepared in a variety of ways: a kotlet or odrezak cooked na žaru will be a simple grill, bečki odrezak (Wiener schnitzel) comes fried in breadcrumbs, pariški odrezak (Pariser schnitzel) is fried in batter and zagrebački odrezak (Zagreb schnitzel) is stuffed with cheese and ham. Mješano meso (mixed grill) appears on all menus and will usually consist of a pork or veal kotlet, a few ćevapi, a pljeskavica and maybe a spicy kobasica (sausage), served alongside a bright-red aubergine and pepper relish known as ajvar.
Lamb is usually prepared as a spit-roast. In sheep-raising regions (Cres, Rab, the hinterland of Zadar and Split) it’s quite common to see roadside restaurants where a whole sheep is being roasted over an open fire in the car park to tempt travellers inside. One way of preparing diced lamb that’s typical of Istria and the Adriatic islands is to slow-bake it underneath a peka – a metal lid that is covered with hot embers.
Stewed meats are less common than grilled or baked ones, although goulash (gulaš) is frequently employed as a sauce served with pasta, and čobanac (a fiery red stew) is a staple of the southeast. Grah (or fažol in Dalmatia) is a delicious soup of paprika-spiced haricot beans (grah literally means “beans”) with bits of sausage or pljeskavica added.
A main course associated with Dalmatia is pašticada (beef cooked in wine and prunes). The most common poultry dish is purica s mlincima (turkey with baked pasta slivers), which is indigenous to Zagreb and the Zagorje. Other meaty mains include punjene paprike (peppers stuffed with rice and meat) and sarma (cabbage leaves filled with a similar mixture). Arambašica, a version of sarma found in the Dalmatian hinterland, contains more meat and less rice.
On the coast you’ll be regaled with every kind of seafood. Starters include salata od hobotnice (octopus salad) and the slightly more expensive salata od jastoga (nibble-size portions of lobster flesh seasoned with olive oil and herbs). Fish can come either na žaru (grilled), u pečnici (baked) or lešo (boiled). Grilling is by far the most common way of preparing freshly caught fish, which is sold by weight (the best fish starts at about 300Kn per kilo in cheap and mid-range restaurants, 400Kn per kilo in top-class establishments). Waiting staff will tell you what fish they have in stock, or will show you a tray of fish from which to choose. A decent-sized fish for one person usually weighs somewhere between a third and half a kilo, although you can always order a big fish and share it between two people. Fish dishes are invariably accompanied by blitva (Swiss chard), a spinach-like plant indigenous to Dalmatia, served with boiled potatoes and garlic.
Among the tastiest white fish are kovač (John Dory), list (sole), brancin (sea bass), komarča or orada (gilt-head sea bream) and škrpina (scorpion fish), although the range of fish caught in Adriatic waters is almost limitless. Oslić (hake) is slightly cheaper than the others, and is often served sliced and pan-fried in batter or breadcrumbs rather than grilled – when it will be priced per portion rather than by weight. Cheaper still is so-called plava riba (oily fish), a category that includes anchovies and mackerel. Another budget choice is girice, tiny fish similar to whitebait, which are deep fried and eaten whole. Brodet (also spelled brudet) is seafood stewed in red wine and spices. Two ubiquitous and inexpensive staples are lignje na žaru (grilled squid) and crni rižot (“black risotto”; made from pieces of squid with the ink included).
The more expensive or specialist establishments will have delicacies such as crab, oysters, mussels and lobster. Scampi usually come as whole prawns which you have to crack open with your fingers, rather than the sanitized, breadcrumbed variety found in northwestern Europe. They’re often served with a buzara sauce, made from garlic and wine.
Accompaniments, salads and desserts
You’ll usually be offered a choice of accompaniments with your main course: boiled potatoes, chips, rice and gnocchi are the most common. Indigenous forms of pasta include fuži in Istria (pasta dough rolled into a cylinder or folded into a twirl, and occasionally filled), šurlice on the island of Krk and mlinci in Zagreb and the Zagorje – the last are lasagne-thin scraps of dough which are boiled, then baked. Additional vegetables can be ordered as items from the menu. Croatians eat an enormous amount of bread, and you’ll be expected to scoff a couple of large slices with your meal regardless of whatever else you order.
The most common salads are zelena salata (green salad) and mješana salata (mixed salad). Other popular side dishes are gherkins (krastavci) and pickled peppers (paprike).
Typical restaurant desserts include sladoled (ice cream), torta (cake) and palačinke (pancakes), which are usually served sa marmeladom (with marmalade), s čokoladom (with chocolate sauce) or s oresima (with walnuts). In Dubrovnik, try rožata, the locally produced version of crème caramel. A slastičarnica is a place to find ice cream, cakes and pastries, including baklava, the syrup-coated pastry indigenous to the Balkans and the Middle East.
Drinking takes place in a kavana (café) – usually a roomy and comfortable place with plenty of outdoor seating and serving the full range of alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks, as well as pastries and ice creams – or in a kafić (café-bar), essentially a smaller version of the same thing. The word “pub” is frequently adopted by café-bars attempting to imitate British, or more often Irish, styles. Both cafés and café-bars open extraordinarily early (sometimes as early as 6am) in order to serve the first espresso to those catching the early-morning ferry, although alcohol isn’t served until 9am. Closing time is usually 11pm–midnight, although regulations are relaxed in summer, when café-bars in resort areas may stay open till 2am. Few Croatian cafés of any kind serve substantial food except for the odd sandwich.
Most Croatian beer is of the light lager variety. Mass-market brands Karlovačko and Ožujsko are pretty unexciting, and it’s well worth seeking out the more flavoursome Velebitsko pivo from Gospić, or the malty, unpasteurized Vukovarsko from Vukovar. Ožujsko produce a decent wheat beer (pšenično pivo) and a fine porter called Tomislav. Kasačko pivo is a palatable blend of light and dark beer made by the Velebitsko brewery. Whether you’re drinking beer in bottles or on tap, a malo pivo (small beer) usually means 30cl and costs 12–25Kn, a veliko pivo (large beer) is a half-litre and will set you back 15–30Kn.
Croatia’s wine industry has come on in leaps and bounds in recent years, with a new breed of boutique wineries and family businesses leading the way. Although there are plenty of decent-quality Chardonnays, Cabernets and Merlots in Croatia, it’s really the indigenous or near-indigenous grape varieties that are worth exploring.
Of the main wine producing regions, Istria is renowned for its dry white Malvazija, and for the tannin-rich reds Teran and Refošk. More excellent reds are to be found in Dalmatia, where Babić is king in the Primošten-Šibenik region, while Plavac mali (a distant cousin of Zinfandel) predominates on the south Dalmatian islands and the Pelješac peninsula. The Plavac wines from Pelješac’s Dingač and Postup vineyards are among Croatia’s finest reds, and command the highest prices. The island of Korčula is home to the excellent light whites Pošip and Rukatac; Krk is renowned for the medium-dry Vrbnička Žlahtina, while Vis is famous for the more flowery white Vugava. Hvar offers an embarrassment of riches, with Plavac mali, Pošip and indigenous white Bogdanjuša. White Graševina (Welschriesling) and Traminac (Gewurztraminer) cover much of eastern Croatia, with the cellars of Kutjevo and Ilok traditionally producing the best wines.
Wine sold in shops and supermarkets is graded as stolno vino (table wine), kvalitetno vino (quality wine) or vrhunsko vino (supreme wine). Basically, anything in the stolno category (20–40Kn/bottle) is cheap and drinkable, although the kvalitetno category (40–70Kn/bottle) usually delivers higher quality for a very reasonable price. Anything in the vrhunsko band (120–140Kn/bottle) is really quite special.
Popular wine-derived drinks, all served cold, include bevanda (white or red wine mixed with plain water), gemišt (white wine and fizzy mineral water) and bafflingly popular summer tipple bambus (red wine mixed with cola).
Most local spirits (žestoka pića) are grouped under the term rakija (brandy), which covers all the indigenous fruit-derived firewaters. Most rakijas are produced from grapes, and are called loza or lozovača unless they are flavoured with an additional ingredient, as is the case with travarica (herb brandy), medica (honey brandy), rogačica (carob brandy) and orahovača (walnut brandy). Rakijas made from other fruits include plum brandy (šljivovica) and pear brandy (vilijamovka). Other local aperitifs you should try are pelinkovac (a juniper-based spirit similar to Jägermeister), borovnica (blueberry liqueur), maraskino (a cherry liqueur from Zadar) and biska (a mistletoe-flavoured spirit from Istria. Foreign brandies and whiskies are available pretty much everywhere.
Coffee, tea and soft drinks
Apart from the vast urns of overstewed brown liquid served up by hotels at breakfast time, coffee is usually of a high quality. It is served as a strong black espresso unless specified otherwise – kava sa mlijekom or makijato comes with a drop of milk, kava sa šlagom comes with cream, and bijela kava (white coffee) is usually like a good caffè latte. Cappuccino is also fairly ubiquitous. Tea is usually of the herbal variety; ask for crni čaj (black tea) or indijski čaj (Indian tea) if you want the Brit-style brew. Čaj sa limunom is with a slice of lemon, sa mlijekom comes with milk.
Tap water (obična voda) is usually free, and comes automatically if you are drinking an espresso. Mineral water and other soft drinks are often served in multiples of 10cl or dec (pronounced “dets”). If you want 20cl of mineral water ask for dva deca, 30cl is tri deca. If you want fruit juice, note that the word đus (“juice”) usually means orange juice.